Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 9, 2004)
With the first two waves of “Walt Disney Treasures” DVDs, we got hors d’oeuvres. These sets included two packages of Mickey Mouse shorts plus one with Goofy. Mickey and Goofy have their moments, but not until 2004’s Wave Three do we get the main course: Donald Duck.
The rap on Disney cartoons vs. Warner Bros. is that the former are well-animated and charming whereas the latter are actually funny. To a certain degree, that’s true, but Donald’s shorts combat the stereotype well, and we find many examples of this in The Chronological Donald, Volume I.
Chronological packs an extensive roster of cartoons. It presents a whopping 36 shorts, and these span a period of seven years. We start with Donald’s first appearance in 1934’s “The Wise Little Hen” and progress through 1941’s “Chef Donald”.
For each short, I’ll offer the following information: the year in which it was produced and its director. I’ll also provide a quick synopsis of the cartoon plus my number grade for each one done on a scale of 1 to 10.
DVD One (two hours, 43 minutes, 55 seconds)
The Wise Little Hen (1934, Wilfred Jackson): A mother hen needs someone to help her plant her corn. Both Peter Pig and Donald Duck decline her for their selfish reasons, a decision they later regret. Donald’s stuck in a pretty small supporting role for his first-ever screen appearance, but he and his bellyache make the most of it. Whereas Mickey Mouse’s personality changed radically after his 1928 debut in “Steamboat Willie”, the Duck basically emerged fully formed. Actually, his irascible temperament wasn’t on display, but he still came across as typically selfish. It’s great to see him in this early stage, and the cartoon is very entertaining. 7/10.
Donald and Pluto (1936, Ben Sharpsteen): Donald discovers frustrations as he attempts to fix a water pipe. In the meantime, Pluto tries to eat his bone and accidentally swallows a magnet. Despite the short’s title, Donald takes a backseat to Pluto, as the pooch dominates this cartoon. 6/10.
Don Donald (1937, Ben Sharpsteen): Set in Mexico, Donald woos Donna, the fowl later known as Daisy. However, his schadenfreude gets the best of him. Donna spurns Donald when he laughs at her misfortune. He trades his faithful burro for a shiny new car to win her affection. The concept of a Mexican Donald seems odd, and it’s also strange that Donna/Daisy wouldn’t reappear for three years; we’ll not see her again until 1940’s “Mr. Duck Steps Out”. Nonetheless, “Don” is a fun and fiery short. 8/10.
Modern Inventions (1937, Jack King): Donald visits the Museum of Modern Marvels. A variety of futuristic inventions such as the Robot Butler torment him. Fairly predictable, and clearly influenced by Chaplin’s Modern Times, but amusing, especially due to a running gag in which Donald produces one hat after another. 7/10.
Donald’s Ostrich (1937, Jack King): Train station attendant Donald finds a package that contains an ostrich named Hortense. She develops an immediate affection for him despite his protests. An annoyingly cute character, we see too much of Hortense for this one to work terribly well. Donald takes a backseat to her adorable ways, unfortunately. 5/10.
Self Control (1938, Jack King): A radio program teaches Donald to “laugh and count to 10” when anger strikes. Some pesky insects make it difficult for him to maintain his composure. Even at this early stage, we knew Donald couldn’t keep his cool, so “Control” musters good humor due to his inevitable failures. 8/10.
Donald’s Better Self (1938, Jack King): Represented by ghostly Angel Donald and Devil Donald, the corporeal Duck fights with his personality tendencies. The Devil encourages Donald to shirk his duties and misbehave while the Angel tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. This one sort of uses the same “trying to do the right thing” tone of “Control”, but the visible representation of Donald’s dark side causes problems. It tends toward easy moralizing and lacks much humor. (It doesn’t help that it’s odd to see Donald portrayed as a schoolboy when most of the other shorts clearly establish him as an adult.) 4/10.
Donald’s Nephews (1938, Jack King): Donald’s sister Dumbella sends her kids to visit him in Hollywood. The undisciplined Huey, Dewey and Louie cause havoc in his home. Usually cartoons treat extended family like this as a one-time indulgence. Heck, we never hear from Dumbella again. However, HD&L became running characters, unlike Mickey’s nephews, and they establish themselves well in this fun short. (By the way, is it just me, or is it disturbing to watch ducks eat a turkey?) 7/10.
Polar Trappers (1938, Ben Sharpsteen): Goofy uses non-violent methods to capture a walrus. Tired of canned beans, Donald tries to snare a penguin to eat. The whole fowl-on-fowl cannibalism continues to disturb me, and little about “Trappers” endears itself to me either. Not a bad short, it just doesn’t really click. 5/10.
Good Scouts (1938, Jack King): Donald takes his nephews on a camping trip. HD&L prove much more compliant here than in their prior appearance, as they do little to torment their uncle. Instead, his arrogance causes his misfortunes along with plenty of laughs in this solid short. 8/10.
The Fox Hunt (1938, Ben Sharpsteen): Donald and Goofy participate in a foxhunt. Not much amusement ensues. Like “Trappers”, the short’s structure causes problems. It splits Donald and Goofy and essentially acts as two separate - and not so good - cartoons. 5/10.
Donald’s Golf Game (1938, Dick Lundy): Donald forces his nephews to serve as his caddies. They use mischievous methods to mar his mirth. “Game” strikes a nice balance in the relationship between the Duck and the kids. Earlier shorts made one party the clear aggressor and the other more of a victim, but this cartoon presents a more measured tone. It also includes many good site gags. 8/10.
Donald’s Lucky Day (1939, Jack King): A gangster wants to send a time bomb to blow up a rival. Donald acts as the messenger who doesn’t know what he carries. This occurs on Friday the 13th, and the Duck encounters many unlucky obstacles on his way. The set-up creates some comedic tension, but it also allows too much sympathy for Donald. He works best as the selfish instigator and doesn’t fare as well in the victim role. 6/10.
Hockey Champ (1939, Jack King): An ultra-confident Donald challenges his nephews to a three-on-one game of hockey. On the negative side, this short features the most disturbing thing I’ve seen in a while: Donald done up like Sonja Henie. Despite that freakish misstep, the cartoon mostly succeeds as the two sides inevitably sabotage each other. 7/10.
Donald’s Cousin Gus (1939, Jack King): Our Duck receives an unannounced visit from his fat, stupid relative. To Donald’s dismay, the food-obsessed goose eats everything he can find. Geez, doesn’t anybody ever ask permission before they ship off kinfolk? Donald’s frustration often leads to humor, but despite some clever sight gags, “Cousin” fails to prosper. That’s because Gus offers a singularly unlikable character. We empathize too much with Donald to laugh at his irritation. 5/10.
Beach Picnic (1939, Clyde Geronimi): Donald uses an inflatable water toy to torment Pluto and entertain himself. In addition, rampaging ants overrun his picnic spread. In general, Donald plays a supporting role here, as Pluto gets most of the action. This leads to decent visual humor but not much of a story and a mediocre short. 5/10.
Sea Scouts (1939, Dick Lundy): Donald bosses around his nephews as they attempt to take his boat out on the ocean. Oddly, HD&L accept Donald’s tyranny with surprising tolerance and they do little to challenge him. This creates an odd imbalance that the short can’t quite overcome. The elements knock him down a few pegs, though, in this moderately good cartoon. 6/10.
Donald’s Penguin (1939, Jack King): “Admiral Bird” sends the Duck a wee penguin as a gift. The cute little dude causes minor naughtiness and exasperates the Duck. Tootsie the penguin never reappeared, which comes as a minor surprise since he presents a rather engaging personality. He’s aloof, cute and mischievous all at once, and he helps make an otherwise pedestrian short succeed. 7/10.
The Autograph Hound (1939, Jack King): Donald sneaks into a movie studio to get signatures from film stars. Both Disney and Warner Bros. loved to caricature celebrities of the day in their shorts. “Hound” isn’t a great effort in that regard - it’s certainly not as strong as Warner’s “Slick Hare” - but it provides minor amusement. One helpful element for modern audiences: whereas many celebrity-filled shorts don’t identify the performers, this one lets us know many of their identities. 6/10.
Officer Duck (1939, Clyde Geronimi): Donald the cop needs to bring in a criminal. How did Donald ever get a position of authority? Nevermind - his situation allows him to display more cleverness than usual. It’s an odd situation for the Duck, but it creates a solid short. 8/10.
DVD Two (two hours, eight minutes, 53 seconds)
The Riveter (1940, Dick Lundy): Donald takes a job as a construction worker in a skyscraper. Usually the Duck faces off against living being or machine. However, here he battles both, with energetic results. 8/10.
Donald’s Dog Laundry (1940, Jack King): Donald buys a dog-washing machine to start his own business. He tries to test it on Pluto. As with “Picnic”, Pluto really plays the starring part here. Donald acts as the cause of the pooch’s issues but he doesn’t get a ton else to do. Surprisingly, we don’t see much use of the complicated cleaning device itself, as the short fails to exploit its potential. 6/10.
Billposters (1940, Clyde Geronimi): Donald and Goofy adhere advertisements to public surfaces. As with most shorts of this sort, it really comes as two separate stories connected together. Unusually, Goofy’s side of things works best, as he contends with a windmill. Donald gets stuck with a hungry goat, and those elements fail to prosper. 5/10.
Mr. Duck Steps Out (1940, Jack King): Donald has a big date with his girlfriend Daisy. His nephews want to come with him, which he resists. As expected, they don’t accept his decree and they cause him difficulties on this social occasion. The return of Daisy doesn’t add much to this short, as it mostly concerns the frustrations provoked by HD&L. Still, that creates a fun dynamic in this consistently amusing short. Donald’s popcorn dance is worth the price of admission alone in a delightful musical number. 9/10.
Put-Put Trouble (1940, Riley Thomson): Donald takes his boat for a spin, and Pluto accompanies him. The Duck runs into problems with the outboard motor. Unlike prior joint endeavors with these two characters, the dog doesn’t dominate “Trouble”; it splits time more evenly. It follows the Donald/Goofy model with two separate, modestly connected stories, though they come together at the end. Both are decent but unexceptional. 5/10.
Donald’s Vacation (1940, Jack King): Donald tries to take a relaxing camping/canoeing trip. Nature conspires against his pleasure. I like Donald best when he battles against sentient foes, not just disobedient objects. “Vacation” creates some fun obstacles but doesn’t soar. Oddly, it uses the same Indian headdress gag seen in the prior cartoon. 5/10.
Window Cleaners (1940, Jack King): Donald polishes panes in a high rise. Pluto is supposed to assist but mostly naps. Finally we get a Donald/Pluto cartoon in which the Duck takes center stage! That factor helps make “Cleaners” more satisfying, especially since it doesn’t work with the diluted “two stories” format; Pluto shows up solely in conjunction with his Donald connection. 8/10.
Fire Chief (1940, Jack King): Donald leads the local fire brigade and uses his nephews as assistants. That can’t be legal, can it? Despite the various child labor law violations, “Chief” provokes amusement, largely because of Donald’s ineptitude. 7/10.
Timber (1941, Jack King): On a stroll through the woods, hungry hobo Donald tries to steal food from Pierre (aka Pete). The latter makes the Duck cut trees to earn his keep. The brutish Pete seems awfully open-minded here, as he grants Donald the opportunity to work for food. Donald’s reluctance to perform also comes as a surprise, since one would think he’d be grateful for the chance; after all, we saw him as a hard worker in the last couple of shorts. Despite these incongruities, “Timber” produces some fun gags and seems entertaining though not exceptional. 7/10.
Golden Eggs (1941, Wilfred Jackson): Donald tries to capitalize on the escalating price of eggs as he spurs his chickens to greater production. However, the henhouse’s rooster resists this, and the two battle. The protective rooster created an odd character - I couldn’t figure out what part of the deal bothered him so much - and not much else redeems “Eggs”. It’s a cute short but a mediocre one. 5/10.
A Good Time for a Dime (1941, Dick Lundy): Donald visits a penny arcade. Despite the dated nature of all the devices, this one rings true. We all can identify Donald’s frustration with the various rip-offs he encounters. That element adds life to the short. 8/10.
Early to Bed (1941, Jack King): Donald craves a good night’s sleep but runs into many obstacles in his pursuit. As with “Dime”, this short derives much of its success from the truthfulness of the situation. Of course, it plays things to comedic extremes, but it bases matters in real frustrations and scores laughs because of that. 7/10.
Truant Officer Donald (1941, Jack King): Huey, Dewey and Louie play hooky, so school official Donald needs to get them to school. Something of an odd short, it’s weird to see Donald as an authority figure of this sort, especially since it creates a lot of sympathy for him. This isn’t the egomaniacal Duck who uses the nephews for his own ends; he’s trying to get them to do the right thing. As I mentioned earlier, shorts with Donald and the nephews work best when both misbehave, so this one sputters despite a few good gags. 5/10.
Old MacDonald Duck (1941, Jack King): Donald tends to his farm. This one suffers from the absence of a strong target for Donald’s rage. He battles with a flying insect but that’s about it. The bug doesn’t make a good foe, especially since we’ve seen Donald plagued by similar creatures in other shorts. 4/10.
Donald’s Camera (1941, Dick Lundy): Donald goes on a hunting trip in which he photographs animals instead of killing them. Nature mocks him, especially in the form of a woodpecker. The results seem disjointed in this awkward and mediocre short. 5/10.
Chef Donald (1941, Jack King): The Duck tries to follow a recipe he hears on a radio cooking show. He botches the job. “Chef” suffers from a one-note tone, since its main gag revolves around a problem ingredient. It doesn’t go much of anywhere. 5/10.
The Chronological Donald may end on a mediocre note, but overall it presents a fine set of cartoons. Obviously I maintain a bias, as the Duck is easily my favorite Disney personality and is arguably the greatest cartoon character of all-time. This package introduces him to us well and provides a lot of entertainment.